In August of this year, the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, visited the Yasukuni war shrine, which honours around 2.5 million Japanese soldiers who died fighting for Japan since the mid 19th Century. This total also includes 14 war criminals, prompting outcry from Japan’s neighbours. Many do not believe Japan is sufficiently apologetic for its actions during the Second World War. Given increasing Japanese-Chinese rivalry relations with China in particular have consequently suffered.
The consensus of Japanese political opinion is gradually becoming more assertive. Three issues including that of history textbooks, territorial disputes and defence policy have showcased a more confident side to Japan. A small number of schools have recently adopted history textbooks, which gloss over many of Japan’s actions in the War. Although the number of pupils using the books is currently around just 2,000, the book (which the government says does not reflect its view) is available to all. This is interpreted by many of Japan’s neighbours as an example of Japan deliberately forgetting its past. Japan also has territorial disputes with South Korea, Russia and China. The disputes with China and South Korea have ignited strong feelings on both sides. The islands disputed with China may contain oil, which always raises the stakes, and a protestor recently set himself on fire in South Korea to protest Japan’s claims to the Liancourt rocks, currently under South Korean control.
China’s rapid economic and military rise is transforming the balance of power in East Asia. This has alarmed Japanese politicians, who see China’s rise as a threat to Japan’s position. Many advocate a more assertive foreign policy. Current proposals include renaming the ‘Self-Defence Force’ and calling it a military one. This would allow Japanese troops overseas to defend allies under attack and improve the capabilities of Japan’s forces. Such proposals have in turn alarmed many in China, who fear a return to Japan’s aggressive foreign policy of the past. Japan already has the most powerful non-nuclear military in the region.
Japan’s increasing assertiveness should not be seen as an indication of aggressive intent, however. Although there are a very small number of unapologetic Japanese politicians, the vast majority of people in Japan are completely opposed to offensive military actions. The controversy over whether or not to even deploy peacekeepers to Iraq exemplified that. China’s military spending has increased enormously in the last decade, and its economic clout makes any military conflict with Japan very unlikely. Additionally, many reforms are aimed at allowing Japan to take up more peace keeping duties. It will be able to defend itself more effectively against North Korea, which launched a missile over Japan in 1998, seriously alarming Japan.
The North Korean issue is proving problematic in light of the recent dispute between Japan and China. The US Assistant Secretary of State recently commented: “We want Japan to have a good relationship with China. It’s a little frustrating to the U.S. how bad the relationship has become between Japan and China over these historical issues”. Since both Japan and China are taking part in the six-way talks about North Korea, their co-operation is essential. Any breakdown in relations would be problematic for the United States.
The recent diplomatic spat has gone on for a surprisingly long time, showing no signs of improvement in the near future. As late as December the 4th, China postponed a 3-way summit between South Korea, Japan and China. It cited ‘the current atmosphere and conditions’ as the reason for doing so. This dispute cannot go on forever though. Japan and China’s economies are becoming increasingly interdependent, as trade between them grows rapidly. Both countries are very pragmatic, and China’s leaders must surely realise that Japan’s forces are not a threat to the largest army in the world. Junichiro Koizumi will undoubtedly visit Yasukuni again before his term as Prime Minister ends. Expect protests and diplomatic fireworks when he does so.